Is economics vulgar?
Posted September 10, 2007on:
“As for “moral biases”, economics would do well to remove the beam from its own eye, and recognise that it is in fact a rather vulgur monetarist implementation of utilitarianism and hence loaded with moral preconceptions (some quite questionable), rather than the morally-neutral, unbiased science they like to paint it as.” (emphasis added)
I am especially interested in the fact that Idiot/Savant said economics was “loaded with moral preconceptions”. The view of economics as money hungry right wing sociopaths is fairly common, and as a result there must be some reason why people think of economists in this way.
Before covering this, I want to say what I think economics is. Economics is the study of choice. Now there is a descriptive side to this (what is the situation) and a prescriptive side (what choice must be made). The descriptive side is positive, ‘fact’ based, while the prescriptive side is normative, so value laden. A good economist should separate out the descriptive and prescriptive parts of their argument. Ultimately, all economists should agree with the descriptive side of an economist’s statement, but they can disagree about the prescriptive side, as value judgements are different between people. Note: You cannot usually make a choice without value judgements, and even inside economics there is great debate about what constitutes an objective fact. The point is that a good economist will separate these factors out..
There are economists out there who bastardise this process, and will act as if their value judgements are objective facts. This is the case where we get “loaded moral preconceptions” from economists.
What I think irritates people is that people think economists apply values to things. However, if an economist gives something a certain monetary value, this is a value judgement, and can be attacked on that basis. An economist will first try to figure things out without resorting to value judgement, eg if an action makes everyone better off, then that action is objectively better than doing nothing. The ultimate goal at this stage is to model the situation without attaching value to any components.
Once this process is done the economist may want to make a prescriptive statement, this involves implementing some value judgements. While some people say it does make sense to attach values to things, we have to realise that when economists give a monetary value to something it is just as a means ordering the possible choices available (Note that this order is determined by some value judgement). You might say that a value cannot be attached to murder, but you simply have to look at an appropriate set of choices. Eg would you rather be murdered or have your fingers cut off.
James’s post was very good in this regard. He put down the appropriate considerations, and asked whether the way society views them is appropriate, he did not apply any value judgements. He was asking us to reveal our own value judgements to do with the punishment of criminals, to see what choice we would make.
Note: I do want to have a free and frank discussion about economics applied to social issues, but can we please use a different issue than child abuse and rape. We can cover the same emotive issues without delving into issues like this directly.